Schlenker will research photochemistry for solar energy, other sustainability applications under NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program
June 25, 2019
Cody W. Schlenker, Washington Research Foundation Innovation Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Clean Energy, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards for early-career faculty, supporting professors with the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Schlenker will receive $685,000 over 5 years to develop a rational understanding of photochemistry — reactions driven by energy from light that is absorbed by a molecule.
“This NSF award will allow my group to target new types of photochemical reactivity with the potential to fundamentally alter research approaches in solar energy storage and other fields,” said Schlenker. “Photochemistry is both ubiquitous and seemingly simple, but thoroughly exploring a reaction often reveals a complex multistep process that is difficult to control. We’ll develop a set of tools that will allow us to understand and control light-driven reactions step-by-step, and later we can develop an optimal molecule for a given reaction or application.”
The building blocks of renewable energy
Schlenker first joined UW in 2011 as a postdoctoral NSF Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) Fellow, studying novel semiconducting polymers with chemistry professor David Ginger and life cycle assessment of emerging energy technologies with mechanical engineering professor Joyce Cooper.
“Through my NSF SEES fellowship, I was able to branch out from my core discipline of chemistry to reflect on the sustainable development of renewable energy technologies,” explained Schlenker. “It forced me to think about technological development from ‘cradle to grave,’ which means accounting for all of the energy and material ins and outs over the lifetime of a device. Even if we develop the perfect photovoltaic that’s cheap, efficient, and easy to manufacture and install, we will still require new ways to store that excess energy.”
This holistic view of technology has shaped Schlenker’s research trajectory since becoming a faculty member of the chemistry department and the Clean Energy Institute (CEI) in 2014. He investigates the fundamental science behind using light as a renewable energy source, including photovoltaics as well as the underlying principles of battery materials and solar fuel generation. The focus of his CAREER Award research is on nitrogen-containing molecules called aza-aromatics, known for their adaptable light-absorbing and electronic properties. By leveraging the interaction between aza-aromatic molecules and water, Schlenker believes there is a real opportunity to identify new molecular design strategies for artificial photosynthesis, with the potential for scientists and engineers to more efficiently create fuels directly from sunlight and water. Aza-aromatic materials have also been utilized in various photovoltaic devices and next-generation battery platforms.
Sustainable research infrastructure at UW
Schlenker cites the research and teaching network at UW as a significant factor in the success of his lab.
“Throughout the university, there are multiple layers of close-knit partnerships that have been seeded and cultivated on the basis of years of mutual trust and understanding,” he shared. “At CEI, director Dan Schwartz has fostered an institute that acts as a support network for its researchers. Chemistry department chairs Mike Heinekey and Paul Hopkins have also exemplified this model, and we can leverage these partnerships to create and operate shared user facilities.”
When Schlenker established his research group, he partnered with UW researchers in chemistry, materials science & engineering, and chemical engineering to bring a versatile laser system for advanced kinetics experiments to the Molecular Analysis Facility (MAF). Located in the Molecular Engineering and Sciences Building (MolES), MAF is an instrumentation facility for microscopy, spectroscopy, and surface science that is open to UW users and external users from academia and industry. Using these advanced laser spectroscopies, Schlenker and his group can capture a molecule in its excited state after it absorbs light, similar to high-speed digital imaging. This capability is crucial for his research, especially under the CAREER grant, as it allows Schlenker’s group to understand where and how quickly energy will move within a molecule, or how that molecule might react with another at a different energy level.
“Energy flows at incredibly fast speeds, but energy is stored at much slower speeds,” said Schlenker. “Bridging this gap to understand storage in terms of flow is a central challenge of our research, and this instrument makes it possible. To study the excited state of some of these molecules, we operate the laser at intervals of around 50 femtoseconds. For comparison, to capture a bullet as it penetrates glass, a slow-motion camera must record at about 50,000 frames per second. Divide that one frame into 50,000 frames, and then again into 50,000 more frames, and that is roughly the timescales we are talking about — quadrillionths of a second.
“Thanks to successful partnerships within CEI and MAF, we can make this highly-specialized instrument broadly available to scientists on and off campus instead of housing it in a single isolated lab. This effort has been exceedingly successful, and my group has also benefitted from this community — all of the other users have different expertise and knowledge bases, which has led to a very inspiring cross-pollination of ideas.”
Educating the researchers of tomorrow
CAREER grants also include provisions for education and outreach activities, which are a core component of Schlenker’s philosophy as a professor.
“The educational outlay of the CAREER grant will provide further support for our outward-facing partnerships as well as my students’ own education,” said Schlenker. “We’ve already been working with CEI’s outreach efforts to incorporate research questions into science education materials, and we’re excited to officially launch a program called Research Integrated Science Education (RISE) to solidify our partnerships with groups like UW Math Science Upward Bound. Graduate students in my group will host summer workshops for Seattle-area high school students interested in pursuing STEM majors, which will help address pipeline challenges faced by under-represented groups.
“Undergraduate research opportunities in our lab will also be funded by this grant. We have a history of hosting students through the summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program, and there are two undergrads on one of our upcoming research proposals. I believe research experience is a critical aspect of undergraduate education, as it teaches students how to work in a lab, how to formulate a hypothesis, and how to decide what data they need to gather to test that hypothesis. Undergraduate mentorship is also beneficial for graduate students — if you can teach something, you have a thorough understanding of it.
“Finally, this funding will provide another layer of support to ensure my graduate students can invest their time in the educational opportunities provided by UW and CEI. They are already passionate about educating others and growing as scientists, and this funding will ensure they can keep doing both.”
Since 1995, the NSF CAREER program has provided over $1.5 billion in funding to over 3,600 junior faculty that exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.